Beyond a doubt, the first chapter of Ezekiel is one of the strangest chapters in Scripture. God appears to the prophet on top of a magnificent throne in order to commission him to prophesy to Israel. What is strange about this appearance is how the prophet describes God’s throne. God is seated above a firmament held aloft by four strange living creatures and wheels within wheels. Ezekiel’s detailed description of each of these elements was so strange and mysterious that young rabbis were forbidden from studying this chapter apparently out of fear that it might lead to unadvised speculation.
This rabbinical prohibition was wise. I remember as a young boy picking up a book that claimed that what Ezekiel was describing wasn’t God’s magnificent throne at all, but an ancient wheel-like U.F.O. That’s right, a U.F.O.! But there is a better and more authentic way to understand this ancient symbolic language than resorting to alien spaceships.
The problem with the book was that it failed to understand the ancient use of symbolism. The author of the U.F.O. book thought Ezekiel’s description was a primitive literal description of an alien spacecraft when what he was really trying to express was certain qualities or abilities of the angels. We know this because later in Ezekiel 10:20, the prophet tells us that the four living creatures were Cherubim.
But you have to give the book some credit. Ezekiel’s description is very unusual: “…their form was human, but each had four faces and four wings, and their legs went straight down; the soles of their feet were round. They sparkled with a gleam like burnished bronze. Their faces were like this: each of the four had the face of a man, but on the right side was the face of a lion, and on the left side the face of an ox, and finally each had the face of an eagle” (Ezekiel 1:5-7, 10).
If Ezekiel was describing angels, why did he give such a strange description of them? Didn’t he know that angels don’t have bodies? Of course he did. His description uses common physical things to point us to the immaterial traits of these magnificent angelic creatures. For example, Ezekiel describes the four faces on each living creature as being that of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. Each of these faces points to a special trait that each Cherubim possesses. The human face denotes intellect or reason. The lion’s face denotes majesty. The ox denotes strength and the eagle denotes speed or agility. All these traits were present in each of the four Cherubim.
Perhaps the strangest description of all is Ezekiel’s vision of the four wheels within wheels:
“The wheels … were constructed as though one wheel were within another. They could move in any of the four directions they faced, without veering as they moved. The four of them had rims, and I saw that their rims were full of eyes all around” (Ezekiel 1:16-18).
The ancient rabbis understood these wheels to be another type of angel known as the Serafim. This might seem odd at first, but if Ezekiel’s descriptions point to traits, then Ezekiel’s wheels are just another way of describing the traits of these Serafim. His description suggests that there were two wheels in each set facing at a 90-degree angle, so that it can move in any direction without turning. (Don’t try to imagine it, you’ll get a headache.) What Ezekiel wished to convey was that these angels had unrestricted and effortless mobility. As for their rims being “full of eyes all around,” the image suggests that the mobility of the Serafim was complimented by being able to see or understand all that is around them.
Because we are so used to literal descriptions, Ezekiel’s portrait might seem bizarre, but there is a certain beauty behind his method. It is like a Christian icon that exaggerates features in order to denote qualities too sublime for words. Ezekiel’s description does the same thing; it reveals the sublime traits of these angels while at the same time hiding them under a shroud of mystery.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.